It looked like a burned-out aircraft hangar. It was certainly big enough, a towering hulk of intertwined metal beams with a gaping hole in the middle. A huge metallic donut.
That's the way it looked last week. But this is not a ruin. Something vital is being born here. People are busy here, things are changing rapidly. This surreal skeleton is about to acquire some flesh, the gaps and the spaces are about to be filled in, as the new Red Bull Arena emerges in Harrison, New Jersey.
As I stumbled around there (well, it is a construction site, you know) I was astonished by the size of the place, it seemed at times to be as big as Wembley stadium. It won't be of course -- Wembley holds 90,000. This one will have a capacity of only 25,000. But in its current empty mode -- no people, no seats, really nothing inside the framework, it gives the impression of spaciousness.
No doubt, it will be the best pure soccer stadium in this country. As each new soccer venue goes up, the sophistication of the design improves. There's no reason to doubt that RBA will improve on the already admirable Home Depot Center.
Well, of course, I knew that -- I'd read the press releases and seen the architects' projections. Wonderful stuff. But who pays any attention to those slick drawings of buildings-to-be?
Not I. I remind myself that Pecksniff was an architect and turn the page. But slithering about on the site itself, dwarfed by the framework of metal columns and arches, that's another matter. This is not one of those prim little drawings with the sun shining on an ethereally beautiful structure surrounded by hopelessly artificial looking trees and groups of stick like people.
This is reality. And for a while, I'm not quite taking it in. Nearly 50 years ago I attended my first pro game in New York. At Downing Stadium on Randall's Island. A stadium that had been built in 1934, not specifically for soccer, but for athletic events of any sort. It worked quite well for soccer, as it happened, but it was allowed, over the years to disintegrate. A sad process.
On my last visit to Downing Stadium, maybe 10 years ago, death was in the air. The wreckers arrived soon afterward, and for a short while the Downing Stadium site probably resembled the RBA construction site. But nothing was being born there. An old stadium was being killed, and an era of New York soccer went with it. A stadium where Bill Cox's International Soccer League had flourished and where England had beaten the USA, 10-0. A stadium that had been at the center of the 1960s era of touring foreign teams, when Pele and Santos and Eusebio and Benfica, and the great Inter Milan team of that era had played there. Pele had returned there in 1975 to play with the Cosmos, which called it home for a while. The field was always awful, the fans sat on hard concrete, the press accommodation was atrocious, there was no cover. So good riddance.
Well, I suppose so -- but it tears at the heart to realize that history, the past, one's own memories, are so fragile that a bulldozer can crush them to dust in the space of a few hours.
In those primitive days did we ever think there would be such a thing as a state-of-the-art soccer stadium? And just a few miles away, across the Hudson River? I don't think we ever thought about it. It was probably too outrageous an idea to waste time on.
Funny thing. It was the Great Depression that brought about the building of Downing Stadium -- it was a creation of the WPA. Now, 75 years later, we have another financial crisis -- and another stadium.
Red Bull Arena will open next year, if all goes according to plan. It has, I think, only one negative. It's not in New York. But that is almost offset by the fact that it can be reached easily from Manhattan by public transit, the so-called PATH trains, which are, in effect, an extension of the New York subway system into New Jersey.
Stadium building is evidently the rage in this area -- we have new stadiums for the Yankees and Mets and the Giants, all open or about to open. Huge structures, massively impressive, that make the RBA look like small change.
But I expect the RBA to have an advantage. It will surely be fan-friendly. The huge stadiums suffer from something they cannot correct: they are cold, impersonal. Red Bull Arena will be the right size for coziness, for character, and for atmosphere. It has everything to make it a place where fans can feel at home, feel warm. When did anyone ever feel like that in a super-stadium?
Admittedly, I'm getting ahead of things here. The stadium will play its part. But there has to be a team. A winning team. Overlooking that New Jersey location for the moment, the team will have to live up to the title the Red Bulls have given themselves -- the New York Red Bulls. It has to be a New York team. Should you wonder what that might mean -- think Cosmos.